By Assunta Ng
What if you and your family were forced to leave your home suddenly, then were locked up for four years?
This happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate and were interned simply because of their ethnicity. The first group of Japanese Americans to be forced out of their homes lived on Bainbridge Island. The Army summoned more than 270 Japanese Americans to gather in Seattle, then sent them by train to Manzanar, an internment camp in the California desert.
A memorial wall made of wood, granite, and basalt, consisting of 277 Japanese American names, was dedicated last Saturday. Nidoto Nai Yoni — “Let It Not Happen Again” was emblazoned on the wall. The wall is located at the historical Eagle Harbor, about half a mile from the ferry terminal, where Japanese Americans were forced to leave. About 400 people came to the ceremony. Later, more than 100 attended a potluck picnic at Battle Park, where the U.S. government set up a radio station during the war to intercept Japan’s messages.
I had never been to the site. It is important for me to remember that Bainbridge is not about white beaches, scenic coastlines, and waterfront houses. There are lessons that we can learn from the Japanese American experience through the Bainbridge Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, part of an eight-acre national monument under the national park service.
There was no resistance during the Army’s escort of Japanese Americans to the ferry. The internees cooperated and calmly formed lines and put on a number for identification purposes, before they boarded the ship. The only crime that they committed was that they looked like the enemy, said one former internee.
For healing, the Japanese community pushed for redress and apology from the government. President Ronald Reagan apologized and the government paid indemnities to the first-generation Japanese Americans.
At the picnic, there was no talk of revenge or bitterness toward the federal government, no grudges; not a word of hate was uttered among those who survived.
During the war, Japanese Americans of the 442nd regiment fought for the United States, even while their parents were in camp. The power of forgiveness is the strength of these Japanese Americans. Dedicated of the wall was part of the healing process for the community.
According to The New York Times, of the 277 forced off the island, “150 people returned. About 90 are still alive today, and 20 still live here.”
If you have not been to Bainbridge Island lately, you should go. Visit the memorial and learn about the social injustices that were endured by Japanese Americans. My friend James Arima e-mailed me last Saturday morning about the dedication. He was born in a Texas camp, but he grew up on the island.
“There was no place to go after the war, and we lost everything,” he said. Arima said he was grateful that his mother’s sister, Shigeko Kitamoto, took in his family of eight, although she already had six in her family.
The 14 relatives squeezed into Shigeko’s small two-bedroom farmhouse, with one toilet and no bath facility, on a 20-acre property.
Arima’s cousin, Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, 76, still lives in the house. She went to the camp when she was 7.
The house has been remodeled and has been expanded over the years. Her grandfather, Tomokichi Nishinaka, who worked at the nearby mill, bought the house as a cabin. Her mother, Shigeko, one of nine children, bought the house for $10,000 from Nishinaka. Nishinaka’s name is on the wall.
Hopefully, history won’t repeat itself
There were tears at the ceremony, even for those who were not victims. Former senator Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island, who helped get $1 million in state funds for the project said, “It’s hard not to cry.”
Arima said it was the non-Japanese who really wanted to see this wall built, and their contribution has been invaluable.
Kodoma’s brother, Frank Kitamoto, also an islander, said he cried, too. He was 2 years old when he went to the camp with his family.
Both Lilly and Frank worked hard and long as members, along with more than a dozen others, on the Bainbridge Island WWII Nikkei Internment and Exclusion Memorial Committee to see their dream succeed. The wall is finally done. “We just want the story to be told, not happening to others and not in the future. The wall helps us heal.” ♦